Acorn Nuts: The Grain That Grows on Trees

Don't leave them to the squirrels. Acorn nuts were a dietary staple for indigenous peoples and can be part of your diet too, if you but take the time to gather them.

| September/October 1984

  • acorn nuts - oak tree
    Ornamental oaks in a city park will provide as well as will trees.
  • acorn nuts - basket of acorns
    A bountiful harvest of acorn kernels.
  • acorn nuts - fall colors under and oak tree
    Since you can find oaks in almost every part of the United States, it's easy to locate a suitable hunting ground for acorn nuts.
    Photo by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff

  • acorn nuts - oak tree
  • acorn nuts - basket of acorns
  • acorn nuts - fall colors under and oak tree

Before white settlers ventured onto this continent, acorns were one of the staple foods of many of its indigenous peoples. The oak crop provided a reliable and nutritious source of food for these Native Americans, and many families would harvest and eat as much as half a ton of acorns in a year's time. Acorn nuts were also boiled or crushed to produce an oil, which was prized for cooking and as a salve for burns and wounds. In addition, acorns were the main diet of the deer, bear, and the many other animals and birds that were consumed by the Indians.

However, the use of acorns as a human food began declining in the early 1600's as oak forests were cleared for annual crop production — in particular, for corn. Nowadays, almost four billion bushels of corn are harvested in this country every year, while only a handful of Native Americans and wild-food enthusiasts take advantage of the free-for-the-gathering acorn bounty. It seems a shame that the food which once served as the staff of life to human cultures is now widely disregarded.

Acorns have even lost their place as a forage crop for livestock in this country ...although they're still widely used for this purpose in other lands (particularly in southern Europe, where oaks supply fodder for hogs). Whereas our frontier forebears fed themselves on acorn-fattened pork, the U.S. now relies on corn as the basis for meat production.

The Trade-Off

Unfortunately, when the costs and benefits of growing corn and acorns are compared, it becomes apparent that the changeover has not been much of a bargain. As a perennial tree crop, acorns can be grown year after year without cultivation, fertilization, irrigation, or — in most cases — spraying for pests. The oak also has the ability to yield well on marginal land, including steep, erosion-prone hillsides. Acorn production has other benefits, as well. The trees contribute to soil deposition, provide increased rainfall retention for replenishing the groundwater supply, act as windbreaks, supply summer shade, furnish harvests of hardwood lumber and firewood, and in the case of one oak (Quercus suber), cork. What's more, the tannin present in many acorn varieties is a sought-after commercial product.

Corn, in contrast, is an annual that usually requires much cultivation (which contributes to soil erosion), heavy applications of fertilizers and pest-control sprays (resulting in adverse environmental effects), and, often, irrigation (thus helping to deplete our ground-water stores).

Furthermore, as shown in our Nutritional Comparison Table, acorns are quite similar to corn. You'll note that the nuts are exceptionally high in fat and carbohydrates, and the kernels are reported to be easy to digest once the tannin is removed.

9/23/2017 3:56:59 PM

I collected a few acorns while in Salem Oregon and would like to find out if the tree would survive in Minnesota should I get any of them to sprout.

9/23/2017 3:56:42 PM

I collected a few acorns while in Salem Oregon and would like to find out if the tree would survive in Minnesota should I get any of them to sprout.

9/23/2017 3:56:40 PM

I collected a few acorns while in Salem Oregon and would like to find out if the tree would survive in Minnesota should I get any of them to sprout.



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